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Pre-College Programs Make the Difference For Many Low-Income Students

Being a pre-med sophomore is tough enough  — but it’s doubly tough for Marquette University student Alberto Uscanga, the first in his family to go beyond high school.

College, says the 19-year-old, is “frightening. I wasn’t used to coming to a situation where I have to be very, very competitive.” His mother didn’t even understand that he was in college at first, he says. In his family, “the highest goal is to get a high school diploma. [Going to college] had to be my decision.”

Uscanga got to Marquette with help from Upward Bound, the federal college-readiness program. Now, when he’s not studying or working as a dishwasher, he coaches high school juniors in a different college-readiness initiative: CR21, from the Wisconsin Foundation for Independent Colleges.

The college-readiness movement is evolving and growing, observers say. Ann Coles, senior vice president of college access programs for The Education Resources Institute, has been working on college readiness since the 1960s. She estimates that more than 3,000 college-readiness initiatives target underserved groups. The federal government invests more than $1 billion annually in Upward Bound and related programs. California, Florida, New York and other states spend significantly as well.

Indeed, the sheer number and variety of college-readiness programs may be a shortcoming. “How well they work is an open question,” says William G. Tierney, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Higher Education. “Some of them are OK. The evaluation measures that exist are rough, to put it mildly.”

Even if reliable measures emerged to evaluate programs, best practices in one initiative may not apply in another. “The vast majority of [college-readiness programs] are really boutique programs,” says Tierney. “How do we take an effective practice and ramp it up so it is not simply helping 30 students but helping everyone?”

Some programs merely provide guidance on the college application process and provide financial aid for low-income students. Others start as far back as middle school, pointing students to college-prep classes and instilling a college-bound attitude. Some continue their support on campus. On Point for College, based in Syracuse, N.Y., buys bedding, clothes, supplies and backpacks for students. An On Point staffer visits campus once per semester, walking students to tutoring centers and introducing them to “angels” — such as the admissions secretary who knows the place inside out. “She’s got your back,”

On Point founder and executive director Virginia Donohue tells students.

College access for low-income students is getting more attention following the report of U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Since the 2006 report, Spellings has called for better academic preparation, simplified financial aid and the tracking of colleges’ performance. The Education Department has also recommended an experiment to test the effectiveness of federally funded college access programs.

When it comes to diversity, those performances may not be so good. A 2006 Education Trust report found that minorities and low-income students are sharply underrepresented at the nation’s flagship universities.

Officials at postsecondary institutions have long argued that the low-quality public schools that educate many minority and low-income students leave them ill-prepared for the rigors of college. But Danette Gerald, an Education Trust researcher and co-author of the report “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities,” says colleges could partner with college-readiness programs to counter the situation.

“Colleges have to be willing to put their resources in places they may not think are going to produce the best and brightest students,” Gerald says.

That’s what college-readiness programs do. On Point, for example, recruits college prospects from housing projects and homeless shelters. It claims that 68 percent of its participants are either still in school or have graduated since its 1999 launch.

Some programs begin long before the students are ready for college. Wisconsin’s CR21 started with a group of 50 academically average low-income eighth-graders in 2002. Thirty-nine of those students finished their first semester in college late in 2006. CR21 has added 50 participants each year since.

Another initiative, Oakland, Calif.-based CollegeWorks, targets high school juniors. The program recommends quality colleges outside of the Bay Area, helping the students see beyond the limited local circle of institutions.

Close to home or far away, low-income students need support from the universities. “The universities need to spend some time thinking about how to help kids transition socially as well as academically,” suggests Dr. Eric J. Smith, senior vice president of the College Board.

Some of it is simple: Waive or reduce fees. “Such a small amount of money can take them down,” says Donohue of On Point. She says she has met students “who came home for a holiday and nobody could afford a bus ticket to take them back to college.”

But to truly make college effective for low-income students, campus departments must work together and have a comprehensive plan. A half-hearted effort may do more harm than good if colleges accept low-income students and then “go ahead and let them fail,” says Coles of the Education Resources Institute.

Iowa demographer Tom Mortenson, who tracks enrollment numbers, says he detects a “sense of social responsibility” among colleges toward low-income prospects. But he says too many schools play to wealth, risking becoming “exclusive gated communities.”

Uscanga, for one, says he believes his work with CR21 is making a difference.

He tells high school juniors that they owe something to the generation that fought dogs and fire hoses to get to college.

“Sometimes,” he says, “they open up and they really understand.”

–Marc Hequet


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